Obama pres­i­dency draws to a close

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

His­tory will re­mem­ber Barack Obama as Amer­ica’s first black pres­i­dent. But his eight years in of­fice have thor­oughly shaken up Amer­ica’s role in the world and the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum at home. “How’s that hopey-changey stuff work­ing out for ya?” sneered Sarah Palin, the de­feated 2008 Repub­li­can vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. It was Feb 2010, scarcely a year af­ter Obama swept into the White House. He had promised hal­cyon days of hope and change - an end to par­ti­san grid­lock and bloody ex­pe­di­tionary wars - but he was strug­gling to live up to his own hype.

Obama’s first year in of­fice saw four mil­lion Amer­i­cans lose their jobs. Hun­dreds more lost their lives in “for­ever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Repub­li­cans and Democrats seemed as dis­lo­cated as ever. Se­nate Repub­li­can leader Mitch McConnell set the tone at the out­set: “The sin­gle most im­por­tant thing we want to achieve is for Pres­i­dent Obama to be a one-term pres­i­dent.” Obama had tried to tem­per ex­pec­ta­tions. “We are liv­ing through dif­fi­cult and un­cer­tain times,” he said dur­ing an in­au­gu­ral con­gres­sional ad­dress that sur­prised with its gloomi­ness.

But his own soar­ing rhetoric - at times on par with Win­ston Churchill or John F Kennedy - had set the bar too high. He wasn’t helped by the No­bel Com­mit­tee, which made him a peace lau­re­ate months af­ter he took of­fice. “I would be re­miss if I did not ac­knowl­edge the con­sid­er­able con­tro­versy that your gen­er­ous de­ci­sion has gen­er­ated,” he said ac­cept­ing the prize in Oslo.

Fast for­ward to the end of Obama’s labors and the econ­omy is in a slow but steady con­va­les­cence. Mas­sive fis­cal stim­u­lus and his­tor­i­cally un­par­al­leled mone­tary eas­ing - what for­mer Trea­sury sec­re­tary Tim Gei­th­ner would de­scribe as a “wall of money” - ame­lio­rated the cri­sis, but the re­cov­ery was un­even. The threat of ji­hadist at­tacks con­tin­ues and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage, but with a much lighter US foot­print and toll in blood.

If Ge­orge W Bush’s uni­lat­er­al­ism had made him an in­ter­na­tional pariah, Obama’s pledge to cooperate and re­store Amer­ica’s rep­u­ta­tion helped make him a rock star. His credo that “no one na­tion, no mat­ter how large or how pow­er­ful, can de­feat such chal­lenges alone” was met with adu­la­tion by 200,000 fans in Ber­lin. At times, Obama seemed to pos­i­tively em­brace the end of post-war US hege­mony.

He de­fined the na­tional in­ter­est much more nar­rowly and es­chewed in­ter­ven­tion, even when his own red lines were breached and Amer­ica’s rep­u­ta­tion was dam­aged. The cost in blood and trea­sure of be­ing the world’s po­lice­man had been too great. The Great Re­ces­sion had shown that com­mit­ment was prob­a­bly un­sus­tain­able too. In­stead, he looked to al­lies to carry their weight in their neigh­bor­hoods. In Libya and else­where, the United States would “lead from be­hind”. But his tim­ing could scarcely have been more prob­lem­atic. The re­trench­ment of US power came as ri­vals be­came more bel­li­cose and al­lies in Europe - be­set by fi­nan­cial, so­cial and se­cu­rity crises - were at their weak­est and most parochial. In Xi Jin­ping and Vladimir Putin, China and Rus­sia had more pow­er­ful lead­ers than at any time since Mao Ze­dong or Leonid Brezh­nev. In Turkey, the cen­tury-long pro-western le­gacy of Mustafa Ke­mal Ataturk was un­rav­el­ing. Mean­while Obama’s “pivot to Asia” came as Arab cit­i­zens were find­ing their voice and look­ing for sup­port against bru­tal regimes. Nowhere have the short­com­ings of Obama’s doc­trine been more re­lent­lessly probed than in Syria, where hun­dreds of thou­sands have died as Obama has re­fused to in­ter­vene, ex­cept to tackle ji­hadists who took ad­van­tage of the vac­uum.

At home, Obama’s pres­i­dency has seen sim­i­lar seis­mic shifts. Since the 1990s, US pol­i­tics had been dom­i­nated by pitched bat­tles be­tween right and left, con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als. His term may be re­mem­bered as a time when the page turned. Through an in­ter­na­tional ac­cord to tackle cli­mate change, Obama dis­played that pub­lic opin­ion at home and in­ter­na­tional con­sen­sus had moved be­yond Repub­li­can de­nials about the ex­is­tence of global warm­ing.

A mo­men­tous week in June 2015 en­cap­su­lated the sense that Obama had put the “cul­ture wars” to bed. In a few short days he saw off a le­gal chal­lenge to his sig­na­ture health­care law, the Supreme Court backed gay mar­riage and in a sear­ing eu­logy for Cle­menta Pinck­ney - a black preacher killed by a white gun­man - Obama took aim at gun laws and nos­tal­gia for the Deep South of yes­ter­year. The Con­fed­er­ate flag, he in­sisted, was “a re­minder of sys­temic op­pres­sion and racial sub­ju­ga­tion”.

The 2016 elec­tion to re­place Obama is be­ing fought on dif­fer­ent ter­rain. The left­right di­vide has blurred. No one has been more sur­prised or re­pulsed by Don­ald Trump’s move­ment than con­ser­va­tives or na­tional se­cu­rity within the Repub­li­can Party. In the wake of the Great Re­ces­sion, the fault lines in post-Obama pol­i­tics look eco­nomic: Glob­al­ist ver­sus na­tivist, pop­ulist ver­sus lib­eral. But Amer­ica’s pol­i­tics have also moved from par­ti­san to tribal, with Democrats and Repub­li­cans flock­ing to sup­port their own deeply flawed can­di­dates.

Mean­while even Obama’s fiercest crit­ics ac­knowl­edge his White House has been bereft of ethics and sex scan­dals. “Pro­fes­sor Obama” - once crit­i­cized as too cold and out of touch - leaves of­fice with soar­ing pub­lic ap­proval rat­ings that are ap­proach­ing lev­els en­joyed by for­mer pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton and Ron­ald Rea­gan. His le­gacy is not yet fully formed, but as he leaves of­fice some 55 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve the hopey-changey stuff worked out. —AFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.